Last weekend I was in London staying with our friends Dan and Emily. They’re lovely people– when you spend time with them one enters a parallel unierse where everything is cool, everything is nice. Not that they’re divorced from reality — far from it (Dan’s family has a hardcore lefty history) — but rather that life seems just that little bit sweetter when one is with them. Planet Dan and Em we called it. As an example: we tipped up at Kings Cross station early-ish on Saturday morning and there was Dan over the road from the Midland Mainline terminal, in his big white van, with a little sound system rigged up in the back playing reggae. (His big sound system — half of Manassah’s rig, some of Awassa’s, from the eighties — are in his carpentry workshop.) We clambered in and drifted a cross London to where they live, a quiet little backstreet nestled right behind Mare Street. We met up with John Eden and his partner on the Sunday and froze our nuts off on the a lenghy derrive around the south bank. Dan and Emily live ten minutes from Beck Road, where I met John in — what was it, 1989? — at Gen’s old house. Their house is therefore ten minutes from St Joseph’s Hospice, which is just opposite Beck Road.
And it was at St Joseph’s Hospice that my father died, and we realised whilst walking past Hackney Town Hall on the Saturday that that day was the seventh anniversary of us going there to register my dad’s death.
My dad — Tom, not Thomas — died of lung cancer after a brief terminal illness that lasted a few months. Or maybe it wasn’t brief — he started smoking when he was a child eleven and I can’t ever remember a time when he was really well. In a sense he was dying for a very long time indeed, certainly he wasn’t really living as much as I would have wanted him to. When he died it was, as it often is, something of a relief. I was fortunate that I was able to see him dead. I think my mum really regrets not having seen him dead. The catharsis from seeing him on the slab, face yellowed and hollowed in death, was immediate and overwhelming, an instant breakdown into tears. He was finished with suffering — he had very expensive private health care which in his case hastened the end — but it wasn’t a good death for the rest of us, simply because so much damage had been wrought over the course of his illness. I won’t go into the details but effectively his marriage to my mother dissolved when he was diagnosed and the whole family collapsed. It got worse ater he died, and it’s a mad story, and was horrible to live through; not just for me, but for all the people around me, including John.
I think it was the hospice that finally killed him. He was in there for one day, and that night, he died. We got the call at four in the morning in Brixton that he’d died. We got to the Hospice around five. I was numb, in shock, as you need to be in these situations, but when we got the ward where he had been it was nightmarish: so many people, all old men as I remember it, hours from death, and so many of them not fading from life in blissful narcolepsy, but struggling in a losing fight with pain, crying out and screaming. I remember thinking, “This is bedlam.” For some there was nothing the doctors and nurses could do. I imagine my father lying there and thinking, “Sod this. I’m off.” He didn’t last the night. We children last saw him the previous day — my mother wasn’t talking to him by this point — and he was gleefully out of his mind on drugs, inured from the devestation wrought on his body by cancer. He made a point of saying, “What’s that herb you take…” — I could never work out how much emphasis he laid on the “you” — and we said it was cannabis. And he said “That’s alright that is.” I thought that was a terribly kind thing to say in your last few hours on earth. When I drove home from his flat in Docklands I knew I wouldn’t see him again, not in a state fit to talk.
They say life goes in seven year cycles. I don’t know if that’s really true or not, but it kind of feels like it. The pain softens, turns into a tenderness that can be joyful. I was just amazed to find myself — completely unplanned — right back where I was seven yeas ago.
Well, geographically, anyway. This time we went over to a park on the edge of London Fields so the various children could burn off some energy and I had to take emergency action so that my older boy could perform a private function without access to facilities. Brilliant!
Goodbye dad. I wish you’d got to see the kids, but that’s OK. Love you.